hope, romance, confusion, fragility: defining the Sally Rooney novel and growing up

Since this is a bit different than what I typically share on here, I wanted to write a preamble. I wrote this piece about Sally Rooney for a unique assignment in one of my writing classes a year ago. As any young adult, I feel like I've lived many lifetimes since then, but my mind comes back to this piece quite a bit, and I wanted to share it. I think it's sat on my computer long enough. So this is long and more formal than what I normally post, but if you're not sick of thinking about Sally Rooney, this is a bit about my view of Rooney's writing devices as well as a comment on how criticism often has more to do with you than the art itself. 

At sixteen, I stumbled upon Sally Rooney’s books nestled on a shelf in the library. I was wandering away from YA novels for the first time, and the main library was still a relatively new, confusing place. I grabbed the slim hardcover with two impressionistically drawn faces over blocks of blue and green sufficiently intrigued. In the center, between the large title reading Normal People and author’s name, there was an ominous promise that this was “a novel,” if that wasn’t already obvious. I knew her books were popular, and I was curious about stories set at university, so I left with Normal People that day. By the end, I viscerally hated the book. 
Marianne and Connell’s story starts during high school, or secondary school as it’s called in Ireland where the book takes place. They start seeing each other in secret, establishing a confusing pattern of slipping in and out of each other’s lives that carries on all through university, never able to articulate exactly what they are to each other. Why can’t they just have a real conversation? The solution to Connell and Marianne’s problems was so incredibly simple, and I struggled to grasp how we were supposed to care about their romance. Still, I was intrigued enough by Rooney’s carefully pieced together prose that I also read her debut novel, Conversations With Friends, which follows Frances as she navigates a blurry relationship with her best friend Bobbi and falls into an affair with the eccentric, older actor Nick. The phenomenon of Sally Rooney and the visceral love or hate readers develop for her books stayed with me for years until I finally reread Normal People a few weeks ago as a junior in college. I went in expecting to hate it and find it utterly unromantic and strange once again, but this reading left me rattled as I watched how much I’ve changed clarify with every turn of the page.
            At her most successful, Rooney illuminates how our attempts to communicate often go wrong in the best of circumstances and become even more volatile online. Instead of flinching away from dating her books with technology, she offers specific references to emails, texting, and even Facebook, embracing a particular millennial moment where the digital and physical worlds became inextricably blended. As a member of Gen Z, this confusing tangle feels even more pressing to me as all of my relationships develop in multiple dimensions. 
Re-reading her novels as I cross the cusp of adulthood, I understand Connell and Marianne’s fear of being forthright even in the most obvious exchanges and Frances’s ability to get completely absorbed in Nick because she feels lost in her own identity. I recognize their worries and fears now as my own, and I’ve lost moments from not knowing exactly what to say. There’s more to be learned from Rooney’s stories about love than I gave her credit for at sixteen. 
Time Magazine, in a round table conversation about Rooney’s books and popularity, suggested that the same tote bag carrying, oat milk latte drinking young women who gravitate towards Rooney’s books also love Phoebe Waller Bridge’s 2016 television show, Fleabag. In the second season of the show, the title character has a panicked breakdown about navigating life and love saying, “I want someone to tell me what to believe in. Who to vote for and who to love and how to tell them. I want someone to tell me how to live my life because, Father, so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.” This sentiment could’ve been uttered by any of Rooney’s characters because, under its shiny varnish and cloudy disposition, she writes books about love that could nearly be taken as romance. While the genre fundamentally requires a straightforward happily ever after that Rooney eschews, she plays with many of the tropes of romance including miscommunication and friends to lovers. 
Constance Grady wrote about Rooney’s break from traditional literary fiction in the ways she negotiates hurt in her story. While she maintains literary fiction’s focus intense character exploration above all else, she escapes the dark, dour sentiments that many literary fiction novels take on, presumably for an air of appearing serious. Instead of dooming her characters and the notion of love on the whole as books like Eilief Baum’s The Idiot does, Rooney instead teaches lessons about the difficulty of negotiating love in modern times. 
“Where Rooney veers away from the expected course is in the way she makes her readers fully aware of all the ways in which her romances are unhealthy and unbalanced, while also allowing them to feel tender and loving,” Grady begins. In real life, humans are never perfect, and Rooney embraces the message that people are redeemable even when they make unfortunate mistakes. Even if those mistakes hurt others. There is a subtlety to her romance that I missed when I was younger. “Her books are restrained and analytical, but they are never chilly,” Grady emphasizes. Rooney famously doesn’t use quotation marks to set off her dialogue which comes across as a bold and jarring choice the first time you read one of her novels, but it ultimately contributes to her style of stating every action, emotion, and reaction as a simple fact. She doesn’t favor dramatizing the pain points or the beautiful moments of genuine connection to give one more signaled significance. This “restrained” tactic leaves most of the butterflies and overt feelings between the lines instead of thrown all over the page as in traditionally romantic media involving teens like The Fault In Our Stars
And, in this way, Rooney’s crew of characters can come off as cold and unromantic as they emotionally injure each other through a series of miscalculations and accidents. Marianne’s self-worth never fully recovers from Connell refusing to acknowledge their connection in high school, even as they continue trying to love each other through their early twenties. It’s easy to dismiss their relationship as ill-fated and not worth the energy and investment because Rooney rarely spends time dwelling on gushy moments. She instead lets the reader unearth the unique comfort and sense of safety that propels their relationship forward for themselves. But it’s these tiny gestures and quiet exchanges that often create the building blocks of relationships far more than the sweeping gestures I loved to fantasize about as a teen. Despite what ‘80s movies would have you believe, there are rarely Say Anything moments in life.
While Marianne and Connell spend most of Normal People separated either physically or through their various emotional rifts, there’s still a romantic joy to be found in the story. There’s also hope that there will be redemption regardless of emotional self-injury or the wounds you suffer from someone else that hold you back. And while there’s no perfectly happy endings in Rooney’s books, there’s a sense of hope that they’ll one day find their way back to each other, a backbone sentiment of YA stories. There’s also an understanding that it might be better if it didn’t. 
This moves to firmly cement this story as a literary novel for adults, ultimately reflective on a time of life rather than in the throes of it. It’s not a fairytale, but there’s something that feels real in the loose ends and torn feelings. It’s Twilight for people who are too cynical to get swept away by the bland naivetĂ© of stories like Twilight,” proposes TV writer Alison Herman. Where Bella and Edward’s magnetic connection is mostly challenged by external forces, there’s an appeal to Marianne and Connell’s largely self-perpetuated struggles to my cynical Gen Z disposition. Still, Twilight, a defining teen phenomenon for millennials, laid a foundational groundwork for the success of Rooney’s books which are part of a first wave of lauded, millennial crafted literature. There’s certainly shared DNA.
Fundamental to both Rooney’s romances and modern life itself is miscommunication. In Normal People, Connell leaves Dublin and initiates a break-up because Marianne doesn’t understand he wants an invitation to stay at her apartment. It’s such a painfully easy question, and he knows she’ll say yes, but he gets in his own way and reads the signs wrong. It’ll make you want to chuck the book across the room with a mixture of frustration and sympathy for how easily both of their pain could’ve been avoided, but it’s also familiar. By your twenties, everyone has let a pivotal opportunity pass them by, whether it be romantic, academic, or career based. The first time I read Normal People, life seemed like an endless expanse of possibility and chances to be taken. By my second reading, I’d come to realize that moving forward requires closing certain doors as well. Rooney banks on this identification leading readers to offer a sense of grace to the characters.
During that first reading, having never experienced love and hardly even a crush besides the celebrity kind, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just speak to each other like normal people. Now, I identify with the tongue-tied worries that persist even after you’ve gotten to know someone, and even beyond the realms of love, how easily your confidence is shaken as you come to realize how little you actually know. Herman identifies this quandary and media’s love of ineffectively using the miscommunication trope to drum up conflict that could be easily resolved with a single, rational conversation. It’s the character’s youth that allows it to work for Herman, “But Normal People isn’t about adults. The miscommunication between Marianne and Connell feels entirely believable, and therefore authentically tragic.” 
Though Connell and Marianne have an undeniable connection and knowledge of one another, neither have models for healthy relationships in their parents, and they haven’t had the life experience to learn how to effectively communicate on their own. “What could be more normal than that?” Herman concludes. Rooney doesn’t show a fully developed romance. She instead showcases what it means to learn to fall in love for the first time. She articulates the difficult bridge between shallow first crushes and love and how scary it can be when you find someone who feels like they truly understand. The idea of sacrificing that connection for anything is terrifying. 
So often, in the third act of genre fiction like romance, there will be a forced moment of conflict designed to pull the love interests apart so that they can work to come back together for the happy ending. In the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, this is the moment when Laura Jean breaks up with Peter under the false impression that he hooked up with another girl, or classically, in the Hunger Games, when the Capitol interferes to tell Katniss and Peta that they both can’t win or even survive the Games. While Rooney does follow a traditional four act structure, Connell and Marianne struggle throughout the entire book. In their constant misunderstandings dating all the way back to high school, there’s a pattern established that makes their more significant hurdles feel natural for their dynamic instead of forced for the sake of drama or the plot. They’re like lost baby deer not quite sure where they’re heading and wobbling precariously as they make mistakes and occasionally learn from them.
In recent years, self-professed Sally Rooney fan Taylor Swift has also gotten reflective about these “lost baby deer” moments in her own life and in literature she’s read. Her 2020 album, Folklore, situates Swift in a similar position to Rooney telling stories that reflect on being in your teens and early twenties and the mistakes made along the way. “The 1” particularly focuses on this as she sings, “And if you wanted me you really should’ve showed/And if you never bleed, you’re never gonna grow/And it’s alright now.” In the chorus, she ponders whether she could’ve ended up with this love interest if they’d been equipped with better communication skills at the time. There’s a sense of regret but also nostalgic sweetness in looking back at her own naivety that feels integral to the way that Rooney writes her couples as well. Swifties on Reddit have pieced together many possible connections between the novel and the album suggesting that Normal Peoplemight have influenced a number of songs.
All these messy tangled lines that feel endemic to love only become further amplified when the interactions never stop. The pressure and potential for crossed wires only grows across texts, emails, Skype, and social media. It’s part of what makes these stories of stifled, confused people resonate more deeply.
There are some benefits to getting to develop a relationship in part from behind the safety of a screen. Bilal Qureshi notes a line that reveals this in Conversations with Friends, “In the novel, Frances jokes that she looks forward to receiving an email from Nick because ‘I like getting compliments where I don’t have to make eye contact with the person.’” Even in sending her own correspondence, Frances loves the safety and time for consideration that email offers her. “I wrote a sample message, and then deleted the draft in case I might accidentally hit send. Then I wrote the same thing over again,” Frances confesses while drafting an email to Nick early in the novel. 
Kuzunari Miyahara at Penn State further delves into Rooney’s usage of technological communication to develop the relationships and personalities of her characters. He found that the distinct choices they make in how they text helps reveal aspects of who they are as characters both to the reader and to each. Marianne types in a very formal, grammatically correct style that immediately casts her as an outsider among her peers. Whereas “Connell is more inclined to sacrifice accuracy in his digital communication to conserve time,” Miyahara writes. 
Digital communication offers a new layer of intuiting someone’s level of interest and proclivities in usage of things like complete words or punctuation, but it can also be murky waters. Things as simple as keeping auto-caps on can be interpreted in a million different ways. Like Marianne, I text with capital letters and punctuation, but friends and the Internet have both reported that this can seem cold and overly formal. With so many ways to interpret tiny text bubbles on a screen, it can make building relationships even more confusing. Even though I know that I won’t be able to tell anything for certain, I’ve spent ages agonizing over punctuation marks and emoticons sent by crushes, and I’ve also intentionally turned caps lock off at the start of each new sentence and deleted punctuation until the text reads in a way that seems more casual and effortless before hitting send. The unnatural ability to play mastermind online is extremely counterintuitive both in the novels and in life. 
The other issue with the digital dimension of developing relationships is that there’s never any time away. As the Alexandra Schwartz notes in their review of Conversations with Friends, “Observations, theories, and quips about the world fly between the friends like so many shuttlecocks in a conversation that never ends, because conversations, in our world of screens, don’t have to.” Instead, they morph to new mediums carrying inside jokes into text threads and DMs. There’s an ever-present chance or pressure to keep the conversation flowing. 
Like Miyahara notes, the same conversation translated over multiple formats can lead to very different results as the pressing time crunch of texts leaves less time to carefully form a thought than writing an email, and emails allow a level of meticulous plotting that can lead to more confusion than a conversation. The Internet offers a shield where you can say things without looking directly at the other person, but at the same time, it leaves little room for fully absorbing a situation or being equipped with someone’s facial expressions and tone to interpret meaning.
Interestingly, though, it’s when Marianne spends a semester in Sweden that she once again reconnects with Connell through emails. While her emails with her other friends are quick and informal, she and Connell spend time carefully crafting nearly literary correspondence with detailed descriptions and meandering thoughts, telling each other stories that allow them to once again regain the closeness they once felt. Without being active characters in each other’s daily lives, they’re free to simply connect intellectually, sharing the musings, fears, and opinions that brought them together in the first place. There’s little to create self-conscious feelings in the white expanse of an email window. There’s simply possibility. It gives them the freedom to simply be two people who deeply understand each other once more. 
As a writer, Rooney also expertly wields the quirks of these communication styles to show the gaps in their ability to communicate. At one point, while Marianne is abroad, she and Connell video chat and Rooney writes, “When they speak the video stream is high quality but frequently fails to match the audio, which gives him a sense of Marianne as a moving image, a thing to be looked at.” This Skype glitch serves as an apt metaphor for how Marianne and Connell are almost always trapped just out of sync. 
At the end of the day, though, Rooney’s books simply serve as a mirror or a looking glass. At sixteen peering in, I couldn’t imagine my sensible, straightforward self getting stuck in such a perpetually confused situation. But between chapters while rereading, I’d set the book aside to enlist my best friend in decoding a text I’d just received and workshopping a reply. I understand the freezing fear of losing the glorious daydream of possibility to taking action. I get that it’s harder in real life than it appears in The Summer I Turned Pretty, and Rooney tells stories where the relationships are just as stilted and confused as so many real-life ones are. There’s no narrative device or convenient plot twist to help her love birds overcome their anxieties and very human flaws. They don’t get the blind invincibility of YA heroes and heroines for better or worse.
Schwartz notes this in her original Rooney review saying, “But Rooney’s natural power is as a psychological portraitist. She is acute and sophisticated about the workings of innocence.” Across her books, Rooney crafts characters that are constantly fumbling no matter how good their intentions are. “The protagonist of this novel about growing up has no idea just how much of it she has left to do,” she aptly adds slicing deftly through both the novel and my never-ending teen hubris of believing I’d finally arrived at having it all figured out. Rooney, having just exited her twenties, can write these foolish characters with a hand that imbues a sense of knowing for the reader. I’ve had the time to learn just how little I know and just how much I’ll continue to change, which is likely what endears me to Frances and Marianne now. I’m able to be grateful I didn’t calcify as my sixteen-year-old self.
During Olivia Marks’s profile of Rooney for Vogue ahead of her third book, Beautiful World Where Are You, they spoke to the actors and actresses who have brought her characters to life in their respective Hulu adaptions. Joe Alwyn offered his thoughts on why Rooney’s stories are so effective at capturing the painful growing up that happens after you get past childhood. “... testing the boundaries of how we love, how we are able to love, how we are able—or not—to function within structures that we have been taught. And her refusal to tie things up neatly or offer definite solutions. I love that,” he told Vogue. Alwyn hits on a fundamental truth of life that Rooney has keenly zeroed in on: there are no definite solutions to be had. There’s only chances and risks that you’re willing to take or not. The takeaway from these twists and turns is simply that whether you take the chance or you don’t, you’re making a choice that will impact your life. Inaction is its own kind of action. 
During my Rooney deep dive, I highlighted a line in Normal People and posted a photo of it to my Instagram Story that read, “Lately he’s consumed by a sense that he is in fact two separate people, and soon he will have to choose which person to be on a full-time basis and leave the other person behind.” A few seconds later, I got a text asking where the quote was from. Each like represented another person who resonated as a sad, lost soul, thrust into adulthood without an escape hatch, fumbling along best we can. It made me realize that growing up is confusing enoughTrying to grow up alongside someone else, attempting to reach out and make connections, only weaves tighter webs. 
Rooney leaves room for that uncertainty. She’s not gentle, but she’s reassuring that everyone else is just as confused in life and love. She’s not one for a classic happy ending, but she’s hopeful. As we often wonder how we’re meant to live, laugh, love in these conditions, Rooney commiserates but suggests it is possible. That’s what I was only able to unearth with time.

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